Foote and Tragedy, Ctd.
While we continue fighting the Civil War in the comments to my previous post, I want to make a quick addition, to my comments on Foote’s literary project. There’s another aspect of the sense of tragedy in Foote’s Narrative which I failed to mention yesterday, and which has nothing to do with the length or causes or result of the war. Rather, it concerns the nature of war itself. Perhaps “tragedy” is the wrong word; whatever the “sense” is, it’s a result of the narrator’s clear disgust with fighting, as if Foote,
himself a combat veteran a former artillery officer*, aimed to reveal combat as, in truth, something less than glorious. That this description is of Robert Gould Shaw’s brigade makes its focus on sheer loss of life all the more telling, at least when it comes to the attitude of his work:
In the lead was a Massachusetts regiment, all-Negro except for its officers, who were mostly Boston bluebloods, including its young colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, whose mother had wept for joy at the sight of her boy leading black men forth to war; “What have I done, that God has been so good to me!” she cried at the grand farewell review staged in Boston in late May. In less than seven weeks, however, it developed that God had not been so good to her after all, unless what she wanted in place of her son was a fine bronze statue on the Common. […] Here in the East […] Negro troops proved that they could stop bullets and shell fragments just as well as white men; but that was about all. When flesh and blood could stand no more, the survivors fell back from the ditch and parapet, black and white alike, and returned to the trenches they had left an hour ago. Casualties had been heavy; 1515 of the attackers had fallen, as compared to 174 of the defenders , and next morning when the latter peered out of their sigh slits they saw live and dead men strewn in piles and windows, their bodies horribly mangled by close-up artillery fire, while detached arms and legs and heads were splattered all about. (697)
War teaches very little about glory, unless your idea of glory is synonymous with suffering and loss, and only a single lesson about equality: that when it comes to killing and being killed, white or black skin is of no matter. The narrator doesn’t doubt the equality of the men on the field, but considers war a wasteful (and, in its way, possibly futile) method of proving it.
*See Mike Schilling’s comment (#1) below; my mistake. Foote was stationed in Ireland during WWII, and may well have seen combat had he not been discharged for falsifying papers in order to go see a girl in Belfast.